Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
I like musicals. Actually, that’s not true. I love musicals. My top ten favorite films list includes Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Sweeney Todd, all of which I have seen more times than I can count. When Criterion released a box set of the complete Jacques Demy films, I purchased it as soon as I could. I enjoy and have defended the artistry of Rob Marshall’s adaptations of Chicago and Into the Woods (his adaptation of Nine, however, is indefensible). I own the complete vocal scores for seven musicals and the vocal selections for countless others. I think Love Me Tonight and All That Jazz are both astonishing works of cinema as well as great musicals, and I routinely encourage everyone to watch the former (the latter being too graphic for a general endorsement). John Carney’s Once and Begin Again both made my top ten for their respective years, and Sing Street stands a decent chance of making my top ten this year. In middle school and high school I wrote two musicals, each over two hours in length (I wrote score, lyrics, and libretto – the musicals were not good, but it’s a testament to how much I love the art form). All that is to say: few things fill me with as much joy as a well made musical, and few things pain me as much as a musical gone wrong.
Naturally, when I heard about La La Land, I was ecstatic. An original musical produced on a lavish scale with extravagant set pieces and vibrant colors is something I am hard wired to love. I instantly caught the Jacques Demy influence in the trailer; Chazelle had proven his directorial chops with Whiplash, a film I respect even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, so I thought his skill would lead to a triumph here. The early raves were all encouraging, and even though the few naysayers convinced me to restrain my expectations, I was still convinced I was going to love La La Land.
I really, really didn’t.
From the first scene, the film failed to transport me the way that a good musical should. The opening set piece during rush hour on the LA freeway is extravagantly staged, fun to watch, and “Another Day of Sun” is an infectious tune that should bring a smile out of anyone, but the film’s focus during what should be a stunning production number is on Chazelle and his bag of directorial tricks. The entire sequence is filmed in one long take, and consequently, the focus is rarely on the dancers but on the camera and the odd positions it must adopt to move from performer to performer. During that number, I was frequently saying to myself, “Cut to a long distance shot so we can see the whole ensemble, or at least zoom out,” followed by, “Don’t violently whir the camera from person to person, cut to them, and time the cuts to match the musical phrases.” There were a few moments in the number when the music and the dance overcame the technical distractions, and the film briefly soared as it was meant to, but sadly, not for the entire scene.
In a nutshell, that is La La Land’s biggest problem. For every wonderful breathtaking moment of inspiring beauty (and there are a lot), there are one or two moments of clunky technical distractions grounding the film to earth.
After the opening set piece, a title card tells us the first segment is titled, “Winter.” We meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and writer who works as a barista to pay the bills, and then Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist with a strong rebellious streak. The segment is bookended by their two rough first meetings. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about them beyond their occupations and basic personalities. Neither one gets a song to describe their motivations for their dreams, and we are not given any reason that they should be together beyond this is a musical, and that’s traditionally what happens in a musical.
The next segment, “Spring,” is probably the best in the film, and the main reason for that is “A Lovely Night,” the meet cute song and dance for Mia and Sebastian. Gosling and Stone’s dancing is impressive and the framing against the LA sunset works beautifully. It’s the only moment in the film where everything comes together perfectly, due to the stars’ execution and to Chazelle allowing the camera to pull back and observe without intruding. Stone and Gosling’s chemistry is also at its best as their attitudes toward one another change from disdainful to reticent admiration.
“Summer” and “Fall” trace the standard trajectory of a musical romance, and Mia and Sebastian encourage one another to pursue their dreams. The film goes through the expected ups and downs, and it always stays watchable, but it never becomes transcendent.
As good as Stone and Gosling are (and they’re really good), there’s only so much they can do with two characters who are a compilation of every musical cliché. I am aware many great musicals have thinly sketched characters, but all of those musicals have something other than spectacular set pieces to drive the story forward. For instance, Seymour and Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors have little personality beyond their massive lack of self esteem, but that plays directly into the villain’s manipulation which drives the story. The supporting characters in Company have little stage time, but they all have crucial song lyrics that make their characters more unique than Mia or Sebastian are here. The guy and girl in Once don’t even receive names, yet their songs develop their characters much more than the song lyrics or dance sequences in La La Land. (To be fair, “The Fools Who Dream” is a great song which adds a lot of depth to Mia’s character, but that’s undermined by the following scene.)
The most damning flaw throughout the majority of the film is Chazelle’s obnoxious desire to film all songs in one take. The result of such a choice is that he often has to move or position the camera awkwardly, dragging it along walls and missing moments of choreography. Personally, I’m blaming Tom Hooper for doing that in Les Miserables and Alejandro Iñarritu for convincing everyone that long takes are good in of themselves with Birdman.
However, the ending undoes any goodwill I was inclined to give the film. Admittedly, Justin Hurwitz’ score is excellent, Mandy Moore’s choreography is stunning, and the production design is gorgeous. None of that makes up for the sloppy, ham-fisted copying of vastly superior musical. To avoid spoilers I won’t say what musical (although I mentioned it in this review), but after La La Land reaches the conclusion of its story, Chazelle adds a gratuitous coda which has an identical outcome to the ending of said musical. The most offensive aspect is the way in which Chazelle tacks on the coda without setting it up and without the nuance or poignancy it has in the original film. If I hadn’t see that musical, I might not have minded La La Land concluding the same way it does, and I might have found La La Land’s conclusion bittersweet and touching. However, I’ve seen that vastly superior musical countless times, and I’m thinking about watching it right now, so La La Land’s coda struck me as borderline plagiarism.
Also, speaking of distracting copying of other musicals, one of the jazz set pieces used a theme copied directly from another great musical from the same director who made the musical referenced above. Finally, if the poorly copied coda weren’t enough, in the middle of it Chazelle inserts a dream sequence with references to every major musical which influenced La La Land. It’s redundant and only serves to drag out the ending as it screams out how self-aware it is.
Just like The Artist was a silent film for people who had never seen a silent film, La La Land is basically a musical for people who don’t particularly care for musicals. If you want to see La La Land, I’m not going to discourage you, but do yourself a favor and watch several Jacques Demy musicals first, most importantly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, both of which soar head and heels over this film, and neither of which this film would exist without.
Personal Recommendation: C+
Content Advisory: An instance of profanity, implied premarital cohabitation, and a couple strong vulgarities. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested audience: Teens and up
A tough film to review, but a highly rewarding one to watch.
Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing my review.
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, and Vincent Macaigne.
This review will not spoil the central plot point around which the story of The Innocents revolves. That plot point is revealed about twenty minutes into the film; however, even though it is technically not a spoiler, it is still something I believe should not be known going into this film. Consequently, there may be a few places where I am more vague than I would otherwise like to be.
A few months ago, several of my friends and fellow film critics started praising The Innocents enthusiastically. Most frequently, I heard comparisons to Of Gods and Men and Ida. While both comparisons are apt, the comparisons that most struck me were to three novels: Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude von le Fort, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Silence by Shusaku Endo, which has a film adaptation by Scorsese coming out in one month.
As a story about a convent of nuns suffering various forms of persecution as the result of a war, the similarities with Song at the Scaffold struck me immediately, with the main difference being The Innocents is set in Poland in the aftermath of World War II, rather than the reign of terror during the French Revolution. Some of the nuns’ decisions may be baffling to a contemporary viewer, but if one remembers how badly they have been victimized and as a result no longer trust the outside world, the fear which grips this convent should be more tragic than perplexing.
The main similarity with The Scarlet Letter was something I noticed toward the end. In high school, I read that novel like most American students, and for the paper I wrote I chose the topic how God can bring good out of evil, focusing on the ways in which the community and Hester’s life improved after the affair and public branding. (Don’t ask me for details; that was over ten years ago. I just remember the general gist of my essay.) Likewise, after horrific tragedies and suffering on the part of innocent victims, The Innocents suggests a way in which hope can grow from the darkness, making the world a better place.
Finally, Silence is Endo’s famous novel about faith in the midst of feeling abandoned by God’s silence in the face of extreme suffering. As Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) says roughly halfway through the film, “Faith…at first you’re like a child, holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes…when your father lets go. You’re lost alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers.” That feeling of isolation permeates The Innocents, and several of the nuns and novices question their vows and their faith as a result of their sufferings.
Into the midst of this convent in turmoil comes Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), a communist and atheist who has little to no respect for the nuns’ beliefs, especially when those beliefs interfere with the work she has come to do. (I said I’m being vague.) However, through Mathilde’s commitment to the promise she made, she does find a way to work with the nuns. The film may be more sympathetic to Mathilde than the nuns; however, Mathilde’s final climactic idea affirms the primary vocation of the nuns and brings a heartfelt joyful conclusion to the sorrowful events that had preceded it.
Laâge convincingly portrays Mathilde’s sympathy for the nuns, even as she clings to her secular worldview. Her confrontations with Sister Maria’s raw yet steadfast faith overshadow the film, and the two actresses complement each other’s screen presence beautifully. As the cold and steely Mother Abbess, Agata Kulesza (from Ida) serves as a reminder of the dangers both of overly zealous piety and of rationalization for a noble goal. Mathilde may have the least amount of sympathy for the Abbess, but the film refuses the easy temptation to vilify her, even as she makes some appalling choices, one of which slightly stretches her character’s credibility.
Director Anne Fontaine beautifully evokes the cold, desolate landscape of post-war Poland with slow moving, long takes and a bleak, blue-gray color palette, only briefly splashed with reddish browns for dance scenes. The winter setting reinforces that Poland is now controlled by the Communists, a hell possibly worse than the Nazis, and Fontaine does not shy away from those details: from the danger the nuns feel, to the outright contempt that other characters have for them, and to the dangerous encounter Mathilde suffers for helping the nuns.
The Innocents opens with the nuns singing Creator of the Stars of Night, an Advent chant in which one verse says: “In sorrow that the ancient curse/Should doom to death a universe,/You came, O Savior, to set free/You’re own in glorious liberty.” Those words may sound bitterly ironic to the nuns at the film’s beginning, but through the course of this story the hope reflected in the following verse of the hymn becomes apparent to the convent: “When this old world drew on toward night,/You came but not in splendor bright,/Not as a monarch but a child/Of Mary blameless mother mild.”
Personal Recommendation: A-
Content Advisory (spoiler-free version): Non-graphic sexual assault (ends quickly), themes of spiritual abuse, horrific off screen deaths, and some gruesome surgical procedures. Not rated
Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment
Year of Release: 2016 Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, and Kyra Sedgwick.
Seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has a rough life. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) blatantly favors her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), Nick the one cute boy in her high school doesn’t know she exists, the only boy interested in her is a giant nerd, her father died unexpectedly three years ago – a loss she is still coming to terms with, and her best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) just started sleeping with and dating her older brother. And to make all of this more unbearable she is going through this awkward, painful phase of her life completely alone. After all, when you’re seventeen, there is, like, literally no one who understands your issues and how the universe is totally conspiring against you.
The Edge of Seventeen opens with a determined Nadine approaching the one adult whom she thinks might kind of understand her. She briskly marches into her history teacher Mr. Bruner’s (Woody Harrelson) classroom during his lunch break, and she promptly informs him she will be committing suicide, in some dramatic fashion that will definitely succeed, because she can’t be paralyzed for life, unsuccessfully trying to signal a nurse to smother her. His response: he’s in the process of drafting his own suicide note, because too much of his lunch hour, the only fleeting minutes of happiness in his day, are eaten up by the same obnoxious student.
Nadine then walks us through via flashback how she came to that crisis, and that flashback comprises most of the film.
By this point, the film’s bitterly strong streak of morbid humor should be apparent, as well as the messed-up life Nadine has both due to circumstance and her own bad decisions. I am aware that there may be some people who think jokes about teen suicide, teen promiscuity, teen drinking, and teen depression are not an appropriate vein of humor. However, the humor underscores the foolishness of Nadine’s choices, and it reinforces the notion that all Nadine’s problems, as gargantuan as they seem in the present, are in the grand scheme of her life quite fleeting.
Mr. Bruner’s “comforting” of Nadine flies in the face of any sort of traditional pep talk, and it is quite refreshing to see an authority figure eschew generic inspirational talk and instead respond with dripping sarcasm, humorously suggesting a point of view outside of Nadine’s own, a concept which plays crucially into the film’s climax with another character. Mr. Bruner is brilliantly written, and while the compassionate heart he has is not an original twist, Harrelson’s sardonic delivery and cavalier attitude, while masking said heart, makes for a fantastic performance.
Just as fantastic is Hailee Steinfeld as the seventeen year old protagonist. Not since True Grit has she had a role that allows her acting chops to shine this much. As the resilient, yet stubborn and often selfish Nadine, Steinfeld flawlessly shifts between the tempest of emotions that Nadine experiences, and she creates a frightened and awkward high school student with whom it is easy to sympathize even as she makes increasingly stupid choices. That’s a feat many adult actors cannot pull off, and Steinfeld does it brilliantly here. For instance, as Nadine makes some of the dumbest choices she does in the movie, she attempts to appear more mature, and the comic pathos of those attempts will resonate with anyone with enough hindsight to remember their own disastrous attempts to act beyond their age or to fix a situation by making it worse.
At one point Nadine’s mother gives her a spectacularly bad piece of advice for dealing with feelings of isolation. She says to remember that everyone is as miserable as you are; they just hide it better. Nadine naturally responds with the classic teenage sigh and eye roll, which that cynical advice, to some extent, deserves. While there probably are few who deal with awkwardness and loneliness to the same extent that Nadine does, it is no secret that feelings of isolation plague many people, especially teens.
Twice in the film, at the zenith of her depression, Nadine looks upward and exclaims, “Are you even up there?” How one views the answer to that prayer will probably depend on the perspective of each viewer, but given the moments of grace and compassion shown to Nadine, some of it quite unexpected, it is not difficult to see some providence guiding her life, especially in a final reconciliation between Nadine and another character which is one of the most heartwarming moments I’ve seen all year. Moments like that in the midst of the morbid humor make The Edge of Seventeen a poignant and rare coming of age story, as full of mixed emotions as its flawed and loveable protagonist.
Personal Recommendation: A
Content Advisory: Non-graphic sexual activity between teens, including a scenario which almost turns into an assault, underage drinking, recurring foul language, and some crude gestures. MPAA rating: R
Suggested audience: Adults with discernment